column By: Dave Scovill | March, 21
Roberta and I were in the Wolfe Publishing booth just before the Safari Club International convention was to close for the day when Randy walked up and asked if we could meet at the Peppermill for dinner after the show. Roberta said yes, we would drive over in our car soonest, after closing the booth. In the few minutes remaining before the show would close down, I walked over to the Martin Pieters Safari booth and asked Martin if he would like to have dinner with us and the Barnes Bullet folks. Martin was maybe 25 years old or so, already awarded the Professional Hunter of the Year honors in Zimbabwe, Africa, in his first year as a professional, and I thought he might like to meet Randy and Coni.
As Roberta and I headed toward the convention hall door to the parking lot, I spotted Randy walking with General Yeager. We caught up with them outside, introduced everyone all-around, and decided Martin and the General could ride over with Roberta and me as Randy’s truck would be crowded.
Roberta walked toward our car, opened the door and put the top down. I stepped back and quietly asked Martin if he knew who General Yeager was. He looked at the gentleman standing nearby and said “no.” I explained that he was the first man to break the sound barrier in 1947, but that wasn’t big news in Rhodesia (later to become Zimbabwe) school books at the time, and likely not even today. As Martin and General Yeager settled in the back seat, I whispered to Roberta, “Drive careful, you have precious cargo back there.”
As we entered the casino, heads turned and the General graciously nodded. He was clearly at home walking through the aisles between gaming tables to the restaurant. I mentioned to Martin that it was amazing, people appear stunned, some standing, some offering a salute. There was no security, no fanfare, no autographs, just a man of remarkable courage at ease in the world he helped to change.
Dinner was uneventful; Roberta, Randy and Coni across the table, Martin on Yeager’s left with me on the right. Other guests filled in at either end. As the meal progressed, General Yeager answered a number of questions, most notable was: “How did you manage to deal with the pain in your ribs inside that small cockpit?” When questioned about how it felt to break the sound barrier, his response was: “It was a nonevent, the blast created by the sonic boom observers heard on the ground wasn’t what I heard in the cockpit. The Bell XS-1 just slipped into another zone.” The movie The Right Stuff (1983) had come out, and I visualized that scene when the rocket machine just sort of smoothed out into the infinity of the great blue and white sky beyond.
Everyone except for Martin knew Yeager had been an avid hunter for most of his life, and guests hung on his every word when told about flying to Owens Lake to hunt ducks in the morning before a test flight. The laugh of the evening erupted when he said fresh meat was hard to come by after the war, so while stationed somewhere up in Wyoming, he strafed a herd of antelope with his .50-caliber guns on a fighter and called the tower to come out with a truck to pick up the meat.
Toward the end of the evening, when folks sort of settled back in their chairs, I told the General how his story helped me focus on a path ahead; go to college and hopefully qualify for U.S. Navy Aviation Candidate School, and eventually flight school.
I mentioned that after reading his book Yeager, I realized we were both rousted early on January 23, 1968, when the USS Pueblo was seized. He was about to move a wing of F-4s to South Korea, and it was 0200 hours Hawaii time when I, as the Command Communication Officer, reported to an Air Force Brigadier General at the COMASWPAC building on Ford Island.
It had been necessary to requisition Admiral Bowen’s barge to make the trip across Pearl Harbor at that hour, and the general was waiting next to the landing in the dark. He asked if I was Lt.
Scovill as I saluted and answered in the affirmative. He needed access to the Air Force communication terminal inside the ASW facility, adding as we moved away from the landing: “The Pueblo has been seized by the North Koreans.” I almost choked, as that ship had the same crypto communication gear on board as ASW used. But the worst was yet to come.
When the General finished with his business with the Autodin system, he asked: “Where’s that Russian sub?” Apparently, the Air Force had been briefed about the Russian nuclear submarine that had been in transit off the west coast for a couple of months. Of course, I had no idea that a wing of F-4s commanded by General Chuck Yeager was headed to South Korea as we spoke. I looked the general in the eye and said, “It was offshore about 150 miles near San Nicolas Island when I left Ford Island around 1900 hours last night.” The general’s response was “Jesus. Those bastards are preparing to start a war.” With that, he commandeered the admiral’s barge and headed back toward Hickham Air Force Base. It was 72 hours before I got back to my room at Pearl Harbor.
General Yeager responded with, “No wonder the negotiations for the release of those sailors took so long. President Johnson’s hands were tied.”
Randy and Coni Brooks joined up with Yeager after dinner and left for their hotel. Roberta and I left with Martin. I saw General Yeager at a couple of SCI conventions in the following years but restricted interruptions on his time to a nod and smile. He said once that he always recognized the brown Stetson I wore for many years.
May he rest in peace.